By Dakota Parks for Pensacola Magazine
In the State of Florida, 1 in 8 children will experience the death of a parent or sibling by the age of 25. For a grief-stricken family, learning to process, cope and live with loss is no easy feat. When a death in the family occurs, parents and caregivers must often navigate their own personal mourning, while providing emotional support to their children as well. In Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties, grief will impact more than 8,000 children before the age of 25, according to the 2020 JAG Institute of Childhood Bereavement index. Bereavement resources for grieving children and families often fall between the cracks, as there are no regular grief support groups currently operating in the Northwest Florida region.
Valerie’s House Pensacola is looking to change that, as the nonprofit opens its first chapter in the Panhandle. Established in 2016 in Fort Myers, Valerie’s House operates as a family-focused hub that offers peer-to-peer support groups for children to connect with others who are also grieving. Children participate in a variety of art, journaling and music activities during weekly support groups, while parents and caregivers meet separately to learn about supporting both their children’s grief and their own. Since its inception in 2016, Valerie’s House has expanded to include chapters in Fort Myers, Naples, Port Charlotte and Pensacola.
For Pensacola Advisory Chair, Crista Brandt, who spearheaded the Pensacola chapter, the topic hits close to home. Both the founder of Valerie’s House, Angela Melvin, and Brandt lost their mothers when they were young girls. Brandt lost her mother to cancer when she was 11 years old, and as an adult, she found herself drawn to helping support grieving children. Brandt explained that she didn’t have access to a grief support group when she was young, and she quickly became passionate about making grief resources more accessible.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t know anyone that had lost a loved one or that was going through what I was going through. That alienation makes it really difficult to process grief in a way that is healthy,” Brandt explained. “Peer-to-peer support groups help children share and connect with other kids their age that are dealing with some of the same emotions and confusion. Grief is individual and it’s a lifelong journey. Everyone grieves differently and there isn’t a timeframe to getting over it. Grief ebbs and flows and arises at different points in our lives like graduation or marriage, when we’re missing that person on our special days.”
The Pensacola-based support group meets biweekly on Tuesday nights at the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida center located at 1320 Creighton Road, which has opened its doors to Valerie’s House. On group nights, the group is led by a volunteer facilitator and a “group buddy” who oversee the discussion topics and various activities.
While the support group does not function as formal therapy, there is always a licensed clinician or therapist present to monitor and provide one-on-one help if needed. Children are split up by age groups: 5 and under, elementary, middle school and high school, while adults meet separately. At the end of the group breakout sessions, each group comes back together in a ‘closing circle’ to share and recap.
“When given the right tools, children are willing to talk and share about their feelings and grief,” Brandt explained. “It’s the not-talking about it that labels children as behavior problems or bad students, when that isn’t really the case. Those are the outputs of grief that haven’t been expressed in a healthy way. If we can work with these grieving children now, we can prevent depression, anxiety and addiction disorders from happening later in life. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study shows that children who experience trauma and loss are at an increased risk for developing addiction and psychological disorders as adults. We want to stop that from happening.”
The Pensacola chapter officially opened on April 20 and is currently enrolling children and families. In the future, the Pensacola chapter plans to expand the group offerings to include a designated night specifically for children that have lost a sibling and for parents that have lost a child. While philanthropic support from organizations including Big Brothers Big Sister NWFL, Bear Family Foundation, Gulf Power and Sandy Sansing have made opening the group possible, Brandt explained that her biggest goal moving forward is finding a permanent home for Valerie’s House. A location for the Pensacola chapter will allow the group offerings to grow and expand, eventually filling even more resource gaps across the Panhandle.
Valerie’s House relies on donations, volunteers and financial partnerships to help reach more families.
“There are around 300 grief centers in the country, and these centers are predominantly found in larger urban areas. Grief resources are often lacking in the in- between cities, like Fort Myers, Pensacola or Gainesville,” Brandt said. “We want to expand Valerie’s House and bring the organization to other cities and counties. Eventually, my dream is to stretch across the Panhandle and ensure that we’re helping as many families as possible and fulfilling the vision that no child will grieve alone.”
Valerie’s House Pensacola is currently enrolling grieving children and families. To enroll or refer a child, contact Valerie’s House Program & Outreach Coordinator, Miranda Campbell, at 850-582-8255, or email her at miranda@valerieshouse. org. For financial donations and all other inquiries, please contact Crista Brandt at 850-266-0795 or at crista@valerieshouse. org. To find out more or get involved, visit valerieshouse.org/pensacola.